Commentary Magazine


Topic: Education

Disparate Impact Strikes Again

In January, I posted regarding an absolutely idiotic Justice Department mandate that school punishments would be subject to disparate impact analysis to make sure that one racial group at school is not punished at higher rates than other groups. If one racial group makes up one-third of the student body, it should, according to the Justice Department, receive one-third of the punishments meted out for bad behavior, regardless of how much bad behavior that group was actually responsible for. Of course, since it is highly unlikely that bad behavior will occur at the proper ratios, implacable logic demands that either some students will get off scot free, or innocent students must be punished to make the numbers come out right.

Read More

In January, I posted regarding an absolutely idiotic Justice Department mandate that school punishments would be subject to disparate impact analysis to make sure that one racial group at school is not punished at higher rates than other groups. If one racial group makes up one-third of the student body, it should, according to the Justice Department, receive one-third of the punishments meted out for bad behavior, regardless of how much bad behavior that group was actually responsible for. Of course, since it is highly unlikely that bad behavior will occur at the proper ratios, implacable logic demands that either some students will get off scot free, or innocent students must be punished to make the numbers come out right.

Now, Minneapolis Public Schools has signed a deal with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. It had been under investigation for two years because minority students had been being punished at much higher rates than white students. So now:

Moving forward, every suspension of a black or brown student will be reviewed by the superintendent’s leadership team. The school district aims to more deeply understand the circumstances of suspensions with the goal of providing greater supports to the school, student or family in need. This team could choose to bring in additional resources for the student, family and school.

In other words, if you’re white and you get suspended, you’re suspended. If you’re black or brown and get suspended, you get an automatic appeal. How that squares with quaint notions regarding equal justice under law is quite beyond me.

It gets worse:

MPS must aggressively reduce the disproportionality between black and brown students and their white peers every year for the next four years. This will begin with a 25 percent reduction in disproportionality by the end of this school year; 50 percent by 2016; 75 percent by 2017; and 100 percent by 2018.

Translation: Either there will be a miraculous transformation in the behavior of minority students or more and more of them will be let off the hook over the next four years, while their white classmates will feel the full wrath of the school’s displeasure.

As George Orwell would have said, the students are all equal, but some are more equal than others.

Read Less

Should University Scholars Face Travel Restrictions?

In 1996, when I was a Ph.D. student at Yale, I received a university travel grant to conduct my dissertation research in Iran. All was going smoothly until a university administrator stepped in. While he knew absolutely nothing about Iran, he simply couldn’t conceive that a Jewish American should travel there. He called me in and concluded that he thought the whole thing should be reconsidered by administrators and lawyers. At the advice of a faculty member friend, I hopped on a plane before they could come to any agreement and went to Iran.

Read More

In 1996, when I was a Ph.D. student at Yale, I received a university travel grant to conduct my dissertation research in Iran. All was going smoothly until a university administrator stepped in. While he knew absolutely nothing about Iran, he simply couldn’t conceive that a Jewish American should travel there. He called me in and concluded that he thought the whole thing should be reconsidered by administrators and lawyers. At the advice of a faculty member friend, I hopped on a plane before they could come to any agreement and went to Iran.

The simple fact is that Iran is a far more dangerous place for Iranian-Americans (whom the Tehran regime insists travel on Iranian passports) than people like me who have no family connection to the country. Not everything inside the Islamic Republic went smoothly, but the Iranian archives in my experience were generally more receptive to me than the Carter Library in Atlanta was, when I was researching my recent book which touched upon Carter’s attitudes toward North Korea. In the end, my dissertation ended up sharing Yale’s top prize. Needless to say, ignoring the hand-wringing of Yale administrators was a good choice.

In the 15 years since I submitted my dissertation, the situation of those seeking to conduct research in the world’s hotspots has gotten worse, not only for Yale but almost every other university. The problem isn’t the students, but rather administrators and lawyers. At most universities, there has been administrative mitosis, with deanships, assistant deanships, assistant provostships, multiple registrars, department directors, council coordinators, and various counselors proliferating and subdividing. Each must regulate and expand domains in order to make work. Rather than advance up an academic ladder, alas, too many faculty members end up seeking the far more lucrative administrative track. Add into the noxious mix the lawyers, and dysfunction boils over. Rather than raise a generation of young adults, the university lawyers’ notion of in loco parentis represses individual accountability and responsibility.

Too often, academic research and risk-adverse lawyering are mutually exclusive. I’ve been fortunate over the past few years to participate in the Alexander Hamilton Society, which takes national security and foreign policy thinkers to college campuses and has them talk to students and debate with faculty. (This semester, for example, I’ve been to Stetson University, Washington College, and will be heading to Holy Cross tomorrow and Northwestern next week.) At many campuses, students and faculty say that university administrators and lawyers refuse to fund or, in some cases, even allow research in areas in which there are active State Department warnings.

Here’s the problem: Not only are State Department warnings notoriously broad—they seldom specify districts and cities and instead paint with a broad brush, the equivalent of confusing downtown Detroit with rural Nebraska—but, more to the point, it’s the world’s trouble spots which are the most important to research. Sure, with tongue in cheek, I’d say that if I could do my Ph.D. work all over again, maybe I’d be tempted to study the effect of Club Meds on local economies, but I’d much rather have universities churning out scholars of Iraqi, Iranian, Yemeni, Chinese, Korean, or Venezuelan studies. At some point, universities are going to have to choose which they should prioritize: real academic study or the zero-risk policies that their in-house counsels advise, and by which their in-house counsels’ careers too often were shaped. Perhaps at some point, a student or professor will be hurt or worse in a third-world country. That would be tragic. And their grieving family might even take the university to court for allowing their loved one to travel to a far-off, dangerous land. But until universities stand up and fight for their academic freedom, they are destined to become second-class coffee klatches rather than intellectual engines relevant to contemporary world international studies.

Read Less

Of Talents and Truants: the Absurd D.C. Public Education Bureaucracy

Wow. If anyone out there still needs evidence (and as we all know, sadly, they do) of the extreme bureaucratic toxicity to children of the public school system, they need look no further than this pretty breathtaking Washington Post story from our nation’s capital.

Read More

Wow. If anyone out there still needs evidence (and as we all know, sadly, they do) of the extreme bureaucratic toxicity to children of the public school system, they need look no further than this pretty breathtaking Washington Post story from our nation’s capital.

Avery Gagliano is 13, and a piano prodigy. She performs Mozart and Chopin across the globe; she is an international music ambassador for the Lang Lang Foundation; in March, she won the junior grand prize at the Chopin International Piano Competition.

Unfortunately for Avery, she is (or was) also a (straight A) student at Washington D.C.’s Alice Deal Middle School. And as far as the D.C. public school (DCPS) bureaucracy is concerned, traveling the world playing concerts and winning competitions–while maintaining a stellar academic record–is simply not any better a reason to miss more than ten days of school than, say, hanging out, smoking dope, and playing video games. So, when her admirable musical accomplishments took her over the ten-day limit, Avery officially became a truant–something for which her parents could be prosecuted.

Here’s how DCPS greeted Avery on her return from winning the Chopin competition: with a truant officer. And with this email to her parents from one Jemea Goso, “attendance specialist” with the “Office of Youth Engagement” (can’t you just hear Mr. Orwell chuckling?): “As I shared during our phone conversation this morning, DCPS is unable to excuse Avery’s absences due to her piano travels, performances, rehearsals, etc.”

Appeals to DCPS’s better nature failed. And since Avery’s parents can’t afford some $36,000/year in private school tuition (take note, scholarship offices at Sidwell Friends, Cathedral, and Georgetown Day), not to mention a court case, she is now being home-schooled.

As a former DCPS parent conversant with the sludge of mediocrity that passes for a DCPS education, I could go on and on about how Avery isn’t missing much (besides the company of her friends).

But suffice it to say, score one for the Office of Youth Engagement!

Read Less

The Soda Ban and Helicopter-Mayoring

Today the Michael Bloomberg era in New York City drew to a close. Not officially, of course; Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty was inaugurated at the beginning of January. But today it can begin in earnest, and in modest acclamation: the soda ban is dead. And with it exits a style of governing that will most indelibly be remembered for perhaps its greatest flaw: an obnoxious paternalism that told even the city’s starving homeless precisely what they can and cannot consume.

Read More

Today the Michael Bloomberg era in New York City drew to a close. Not officially, of course; Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty was inaugurated at the beginning of January. But today it can begin in earnest, and in modest acclamation: the soda ban is dead. And with it exits a style of governing that will most indelibly be remembered for perhaps its greatest flaw: an obnoxious paternalism that told even the city’s starving homeless precisely what they can and cannot consume.

New York State’s highest court today rejected the final appeal to keep the ban on large sodas in place. The New York Times headline on the story is “City Loses Final Appeal on Limiting Sales of Large Sodas,” but I think we’re all winners here, the city included. Bloomberg is to be commended for some of his policies: the full-throated defense of public safety chief among them. But Bloomberg got caught up in paternalistic social engineering and the soda ban was one of the most invasive–and illegal–results. The Times reports:

In a 20-page opinion, Judge Eugene F. Pigott Jr. of the State Court of Appeals wrote that the city’s Board of Health “exceeded the scope of its regulatory authority” in enacting the proposal, which was championed by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

The decision likely will be seen as a significant defeat for health advocates who have urged state and local governments to actively discourage the consumption of high-calorie beverages, saying the drinks are prime drivers of a nationwide epidemic of obesity.

Two lower courts had already sided against the city, saying it overreached in attempting to prohibit the purchase of sugared drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces, about the size of a medium coffee cup. By a 4 to 2 vote, the justices upheld the earlier rulings.

In that article, however, you can see who Bloomberg’s real constituents were: first and foremost, the media. Proponents of intrusive statist powers are, according to the Times, “health advocates.” Simply because they say so. Even though some of the schemes the “health advocates” have pursued have been shown to produce exactly the opposite result–that is, the population’s choices become less healthy. But as with most liberal projects, the intentions are all that matter. Who wouldn’t want to ban large sodas? Think of the children.

The irony of the Bloomberg administration’s overreach on sugary drinks is that such helicopter-mayoring overshadowed other policies and came to identify him. He’s been replaced by a much more liberal politician, who may actually restore some of Bloomberg’s reputation. Say what you will about Bloomberg’s nanny statism, but he did not acquire his inspiration for public service by watching the Marxist Sandinistas.

Bloomberg’s record on public safety threatens to be undone by de Blasio, whose election ended the era of hugely popular and undeniably successful police commissioner Ray Kelly, after which the police were instructed to stop gun violence by smiling at passersby. It’s too early to say if the resulting recent spike in violent crime is here to stay, but all indications are that de Blasio’s terrible ideas about public safety are just as irresponsible and unserious as they seemed when they began emanating from Planet Brooklyn during the campaign.

The biggest initial threat to de Blasio’s public approval was his staunch opposition to charter schools. De Blasio prefers to delegate his education policy to the unions, with the result that minority students have even fewer opportunities. De Blasio soon realized that trashing proven educational opportunities perhaps struck the wrong “tone.” (We can cut de Blasio some slack here though: it’s doubtful the Sandinistas had anything to say about charter schools, so the mayor was learning on the job.)

De Blasio represents a different kind of progressivism than Bloomberg’s version of city governance. For Bloomberg, that has advantages. Had he been followed by a more conservative mayor, his successor would have simply built on the better policies Bloomberg instituted while quietly scrapping the restrictions on fizzy bubblech. Instead, he’s being followed by an ideologue testing the limits the people will place on his airy radicalism, using New Yorkers as crash-test dummies.

That may leave New Yorkers pining for Bloomberg, but there’s a caveat: de Blasio has so far shown himself responsive to public opinion. If that ends up curtailing his leftist impulses, such populism will distinguish itself from the pompous elitism with which New Yorkers had in recent years been treated.

Read Less

Tory Rivalry Obscures Islamism Debate

In Britain, the storm surrounding the attempted Islamist takeover of several public schools continues to play out, but much of the debate is becoming willfully side-tracked. I wrote about the case itself on Monday; since the story initially broke, a number of other spin-off debates have emerged. Not least among them has been a particularly fraught war of accusations at the top of Britain’s governing Conservative party. This, as it turns out, has had as much to do with internal rivalries for the party leadership as it has with a fundamental disagreement over the handling of the matter itself. Then there have been attempts by the left to stoke a debate about Islamophobia and another about Britain’s state-funded parochial schools—a real red herring given that the problem here had nothing to do with faith schools and exclusively concerned events at secular public schools. The preference of many in the media for focusing on these secondary debates is perhaps itself an indication of just how poisonous confronting radical Islam can be in Britain.

That said, the embarrassing and all-too-public fight that has broken out among government ministers has brought to the surface significant factional rivalries as well as some key disputes regarding Britain’s strategy for dealing with Islamic extremism. The fight involves two particularly charismatic and powerful figures within David Cameron’s cabinet: Home Secretary Teresa May and Education Minister Michael Gove. It is widely speculated that May is positioning herself as a potential successor to Cameron, while Gove is understood to be more closely allied with the chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, who has been suggested as another potential candidate for the leadership, although in truth neither May nor Osborne is particularly liked by the British public. Still, they haven’t acquired quite the reputation that Michael Gove has. His proactive and radically conservative education reforms have seen him wildly demonized by teachers unions and a large part of the British press. Gove’s efforts to roll back the follies of “child-centered learning,” to drive up standards through a traditional curriculum, and his latest policy advocating that “British values” be taught in school have won him admiration with a conservative hardcore, while provoking fierce criticism from many other quarters.

Read More

In Britain, the storm surrounding the attempted Islamist takeover of several public schools continues to play out, but much of the debate is becoming willfully side-tracked. I wrote about the case itself on Monday; since the story initially broke, a number of other spin-off debates have emerged. Not least among them has been a particularly fraught war of accusations at the top of Britain’s governing Conservative party. This, as it turns out, has had as much to do with internal rivalries for the party leadership as it has with a fundamental disagreement over the handling of the matter itself. Then there have been attempts by the left to stoke a debate about Islamophobia and another about Britain’s state-funded parochial schools—a real red herring given that the problem here had nothing to do with faith schools and exclusively concerned events at secular public schools. The preference of many in the media for focusing on these secondary debates is perhaps itself an indication of just how poisonous confronting radical Islam can be in Britain.

That said, the embarrassing and all-too-public fight that has broken out among government ministers has brought to the surface significant factional rivalries as well as some key disputes regarding Britain’s strategy for dealing with Islamic extremism. The fight involves two particularly charismatic and powerful figures within David Cameron’s cabinet: Home Secretary Teresa May and Education Minister Michael Gove. It is widely speculated that May is positioning herself as a potential successor to Cameron, while Gove is understood to be more closely allied with the chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, who has been suggested as another potential candidate for the leadership, although in truth neither May nor Osborne is particularly liked by the British public. Still, they haven’t acquired quite the reputation that Michael Gove has. His proactive and radically conservative education reforms have seen him wildly demonized by teachers unions and a large part of the British press. Gove’s efforts to roll back the follies of “child-centered learning,” to drive up standards through a traditional curriculum, and his latest policy advocating that “British values” be taught in school have won him admiration with a conservative hardcore, while provoking fierce criticism from many other quarters.

The latest dispute has erupted as both May and Gove’s offices sought to very publicly implicate one another for the failings that allowed hardline Muslims to seize control of the running of several schools in Birmingham. The criticism from Gove’s side appears to have been that the Home Office has been too focused on targeting terrorism at the expense of efforts to counter the culture of hardline Islam that breeds the terror threat in the first place. For her part, May accused the ministry of education of having failed to act upon warnings from 2010 that Islamist practices were being implemented in some of Birmingham’s state schools. Over the weekend the prime minister was forced to intervene, Gove was required to apologize, and May was obliged to fire one of her advisers.

It is unfortunate to see these two figures squabbling in this way. While May’s record is somewhat mixed, as home secretary she has shown a serious commitment to confronting both law and order issues and the threat from radical Islamic preachers, who she has gone to great lengths to have extradited where possible. Michael Gove is arguably even stauncher in his opposition to radical Islam. His 2006 book Celsius 7/7: How the West’s Policy of Appeasement Has Provoked Yet More Fundamentalist Terror and What Has to Be Done Now is one of the few serious intellectual defenses of the war on terror to have come out of Britain.

It is hard to imagine that this fight is nearly as significant as the Conservative party’s more fundamental split over Europe, or between Cameron’s “modernizing” faction and the social conservatives in the party. Yet in addition to the pages and pages given over to that story, much of the media has kicked the real issues into the long grass, concentrating instead on arguments about parochial schools and Islamophobia. While the BBC has continued to express skepticism about the authenticity of the so called “Trojan Horse” letter that first sparked this episode, the findings of the government investigation have at least done something to demonstrate that the initial concerns were warranted. Now, however, those who were always hostile to the notion of state-funded parochial schools are seeking to use this scandal as another opportunity to advocate for their abolition. And of course Jewish faith schools have been a common point of reference, despite how relatively few of Britain’s faith schools are affiliated with the Jewish community. Yet whether one favors parochial schools or not, that debate is irrelevant here. The issue at hand concerns secular public schools, and presumably this whole affair could have happened in a Britain in which faith schools never existed.

The preoccupation with internal Conservative party wrangling, with arguments about Islamophobia, and the campaign pieces for and against faith schools all demonstrate just how spooked many British journalists are by the prospect of having to grapple with the actual facts of this case. Only a very few have actively done so. It would be a very great mistake to shy away from having a hard-headed discussion about the influence of Islamism in British public life and civil society by instead becoming side-tracked with these secondary debates.

Read Less

A Turning Point in the Battle to Rescue Public Education?

The battle over public education was never quite the same after the New Yorker published a deep dive into New York’s “rubber rooms” in 2009. These were rooms in which hundreds of teachers accused of misconduct–which could mean physically abusing or molesting students–spent their days, instead of working, while still reaping their salaries and benefits. They couldn’t be let near kids. But they still couldn’t be fired. Here was a key paragraph early on:

The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.

There have been other milestones in education reform and specifically with regard to the unions, but if you want to know just why Republicans in blue states like Chris Christie and Scott Walker had success reining in the unions, the unjust and expensive unaccountability captured in situations like the “rubber rooms” generally sits atop the list. Reforms have tackled the pay and benefits structure, however. Now there may be another turning point, in a milestone court ruling out in California. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Read More

The battle over public education was never quite the same after the New Yorker published a deep dive into New York’s “rubber rooms” in 2009. These were rooms in which hundreds of teachers accused of misconduct–which could mean physically abusing or molesting students–spent their days, instead of working, while still reaping their salaries and benefits. They couldn’t be let near kids. But they still couldn’t be fired. Here was a key paragraph early on:

The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.

There have been other milestones in education reform and specifically with regard to the unions, but if you want to know just why Republicans in blue states like Chris Christie and Scott Walker had success reining in the unions, the unjust and expensive unaccountability captured in situations like the “rubber rooms” generally sits atop the list. Reforms have tackled the pay and benefits structure, however. Now there may be another turning point, in a milestone court ruling out in California. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In a closely watched court case that challenged California’s strong teacher employment protections, a group of nine students have prevailed against the state and its two largest teachers’ unions.

A California Superior Court on Tuesday found that all the state laws challenged in the case were unconstitutional. The verdict that could fuel similar lawsuits in other states where legislative efforts have failed to ease rules for the dismissal of teachers considered ineffective.

The student plaintiffs in Vergara v. California argued that the statutes protecting teachers’ jobs serve more often to keep poor instructors in the schools—hurting students’ chances to succeed. The teachers’ unions said state laws didn’t preclude school districts from making their own hiring and firing decisions.

Among the laws challenged in the case was California’s “Last-In, First-Out” layoff statute, which requires layoffs based on seniority rather than classroom performance. Also challenged were complex dismissal statutes for ineffective teachers that plaintiffs described as costly, burdensome and involving “a borderline infinite number of steps.”

If the California case were unique, this would be a local victory. As the “rubber rooms” illustrate, it isn’t. In New Jersey, for instance, the process for firing a teacher is essentially rigged against the district, with time delays and the costs of attorney’s fees and the teacher’s salary on top of a replacement instructor for the duration of the process, with no guarantee the teacher can be fired at the end of it. As a result, even attempting to fire a teacher becomes an arduous, and usually avoided, course of action. In Wisconsin, union privileges meant teachers were indeed fired–good teachers, and young teachers, so that those with seniority could keep their generous benefits and job security.

New Jersey and Wisconsin are not alone either, but they illustrate why there was public support for getting union privileges under some control even in liberal states: the policies are so clearly rigged against the students. In California, the students bringing the court challenge argued–correctly–that the policies were exceedingly harmful to the students. The purpose of education is to benefit the students, and government schools were failing miserably.

I’ve written about this before: the students suffer because bad teachers can’t be fired and budget cuts can’t touch what’s been granted the unions in their collective bargaining agreements, so the students lose out on books, educational technology, tutoring, library facilities, after-school activities, and anything else the unions can pick clean off the carcass of public education.

The problem was that the process by which those contracts were won was in essence corrupt. Politicians seeking union backing (usually liberal Democrats) promise taxpayer money for it, some of which is then spent on getting such politicians reelected. It’s a cycle that leaves the taxpayers–you know, those footing the bill–and the students without an advocate.

Yet the system is not so easy to reform. After all, contracts are contracts. And the same politicians in thrall to the unions obviously cannot be relied on to legislate some relief. The California case may provide a way out of this conundrum: the courts. As the Journal notes:

Research has pointed to teacher quality as the biggest in-school determinant for student performance. In recent years, many states have moved to simplify dismissal procedures for ineffective teachers and to encourage districts to consider teacher performance in layoff decisions rather than relying solely on seniority.

Efforts in California failed in the legislature, so students and their advocates took the case to court—a novel way to test the long-standing state policies.

A novel way, perhaps, but one that provides a glimmer of hope for students. It shouldn’t have been necessary to come to this point, but now that it has American public education may take another step toward once again fulfilling its mission.

Read Less

Race, Reparations, and the Idea of America

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover essay making the case for reparations has something for everyone to like and to dislike, because a wise and serious depiction of the subject–which Coates provides–scrambles ideological predispositions. Conservatives will be hesitant toward this essay because they are generally accused of racial animus at the drop of a hat. But conservatives should give the essay a chance, not only because of the parts they will agree with but because of the parts of the essay that challenge them.

Conservatives who decry the corrosive power of welfare-state institutions to insinuate poisonous effects into the fibers of family and community are often right, but they tend to forget how much more poisonous, yet less visible, are the generational effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A good explanation of this comes from the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their bestseller Why Nations Fail. In a chapter on the “vicious circle” of extractive institutions, they write that the South’s economic doldrums caused by its reliance on slavery should have been shaken off after abolition. Instead:

A continuation of extractive institutions, this time of the Jim Crow kind rather than of slavery, emerged in the South. … These persisted for almost another century, until yet another major upheaval, the civil rights movement. In the meantime, blacks continued to be excluded from power and repressed. Plantation-type agriculture based on low-wage, poorly educated labor persisted, and southern incomes fell further relative to the U.S. average. The vicious circle of extractive institutions was stronger than many had expected at the time.

Political and economic institutions must be reformed and rerouted, not just declared over, if they are to be undone. Slavery was obviously a system that needed to be undone, and it was–but the broader economic framework of exploitation and aristocratic elitism in the South was not. Conservatives are right to want a political system that doesn’t play favorites at all. But they’re wrong to think that such a system is all that’s needed to erase the stain of Jim Crow.

However, in the course of arguing for reparations (and its attendant “national reckoning”) Coates makes an extremely important point about black poverty:

Read More

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover essay making the case for reparations has something for everyone to like and to dislike, because a wise and serious depiction of the subject–which Coates provides–scrambles ideological predispositions. Conservatives will be hesitant toward this essay because they are generally accused of racial animus at the drop of a hat. But conservatives should give the essay a chance, not only because of the parts they will agree with but because of the parts of the essay that challenge them.

Conservatives who decry the corrosive power of welfare-state institutions to insinuate poisonous effects into the fibers of family and community are often right, but they tend to forget how much more poisonous, yet less visible, are the generational effects of slavery and Jim Crow. A good explanation of this comes from the political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson in their bestseller Why Nations Fail. In a chapter on the “vicious circle” of extractive institutions, they write that the South’s economic doldrums caused by its reliance on slavery should have been shaken off after abolition. Instead:

A continuation of extractive institutions, this time of the Jim Crow kind rather than of slavery, emerged in the South. … These persisted for almost another century, until yet another major upheaval, the civil rights movement. In the meantime, blacks continued to be excluded from power and repressed. Plantation-type agriculture based on low-wage, poorly educated labor persisted, and southern incomes fell further relative to the U.S. average. The vicious circle of extractive institutions was stronger than many had expected at the time.

Political and economic institutions must be reformed and rerouted, not just declared over, if they are to be undone. Slavery was obviously a system that needed to be undone, and it was–but the broader economic framework of exploitation and aristocratic elitism in the South was not. Conservatives are right to want a political system that doesn’t play favorites at all. But they’re wrong to think that such a system is all that’s needed to erase the stain of Jim Crow.

However, in the course of arguing for reparations (and its attendant “national reckoning”) Coates makes an extremely important point about black poverty:

Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success—and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy. President Lyndon Johnson may have noted in his historic civil-rights speech at Howard University in 1965 that “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” But his advisers and their successors were, and still are, loath to craft any policy that recognizes the difference.

It may not be intended as such, but this is, in reality, a stern rebuke to the leftist tendency to hijack the black struggle and tether African Americans to their preferred policy aims. The left does this with regard to women and other minorities as well–the old joke about the New York Times reporting the apocalypse: World Ends, Women and Minorities Hardest Hit. But the struggle of African Americans was and is different; the left’s insistence that the issue of the day–climate change, inequality, environmental regulations–can or should be reduced to a “black issue” is precisely the act of ignoring African Americans’ history in the service of white liberals’ power.

Coates’s essay also highlights the tendency of well-intentioned liberal initiatives that end up exacerbating black economic dislocation and discrimination instead of alleviating it. For example, Coates discusses residential segregation, redlining, block busting, federally blessed “restrictive covenants,” and other methods of housing discrimination whose effects are still felt especially in or near major cities. This made them particularly vulnerable to predatory lending and the housing bubble. Here’s Coates:

Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient. The banks of America understood this. In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars. Dubbing itself “the nation’s leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers,” the bank enrolled black public figures in an ostensible effort to educate blacks on building “generational wealth.” But the “wealth building” seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself.

The government’s involvement in efforts to sell mortgages to uncreditworthy black potential homeowners in such areas was supposed to be the antidote to redlining, a major historical correction. But in many cases lenders were pressured by the government to ignore the creditworthiness of minority applicants, and the result is something like: Housing Bubble Ends, Minorities Hardest Hit.

Aside from a cautionary tale about government intervention in the marketplace, this geographic isolation would also seem to argue for ways not only to help improve minority neighborhoods but also to get kids from those neighborhoods into better schools. The current government monopoly on such education, supported by the unions and Democrats at the highest levels including President Obama, guarantees the promulgation of an effective segregation and the breathing of life into a particularly insidious legacy of the Jim Crow era that the Great Migration could have, but did not, undo.

And that brings us back to the issue of reparations (to close the “wealth gap,” as Coates says) and the reason Coates wants to have this “national reckoning.” He writes:

A nation outlives its generations…. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.

Should the slaveholding of the Founders be as relevant as their political ideas in understanding the founding philosophical underpinnings of our nation’s identity? Coates seems to think so; later he writes that “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it,” adding: “And so we must imagine a new country.”

Which opinions of the Founders must we carry as an addendum to the Constitution? Slavery was a violation of our founding principles. But the case for abolition was not just a moral one; it was also an economic one. This is what Acemoglu and Robinson show, and it’s what the historian David Brion Davis notes in his latest book, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. He writes of Connecticut abolitionist Leonard Bacon’s argument that slavery was a long-term strain on the American economy:

Even apart from the desire for racial homogeneity, most American commentators shared this republican conviction that slavery subverted the nation’s prospects for balanced economic growth and prosperity, at least in the longer term.

Bacon wasn’t claiming that the institution of slavery didn’t provide economic benefits to those who practiced it, of course. But he, like many of his age, understood slavery as a betrayal of the American system, not just a moral failing. It was a bug, not a feature.

So yes, a tremendous amount of wealth was built up in America from the subjugation and plunder of black slaves. But to argue that the American identity and the country’s conception of self is not separate at all from its history, to argue that the idea of America is inseparable from the idea of racism and oppression, requires its own selective reading of America’s past and produces a false rendering of the American project.

Read Less

Time to Eliminate Ethnic Studies?

Earlier this month, word broke that the Black Student Union at the University of Michigan is demanding that racial and ethnic studies required as part of the core curriculum for the College of Literature, Science and Arts be also required at the university’s other component colleges, such as the College of Engineering. The student government president supported the new requirement, according to a Daily Caller report:

It would be helpful for economics students to study “poverty, inequality and labor through the scope of race,” he [Sagar Lathia] suggested. Activists hope that any proposal approved by the administration would assert identity-based themes — such as gender, sexuality, immigration status, religion and race — as a core focus of the curriculum at each of the university’s colleges.

Frankly, the opposite might be truer: It might be comforting to students who seek education simply to amplify their political beliefs—after all, that is pretty much the effect if not the purpose of most racial and ethnic studies courses—but engineering courses would teach a discipline of thought and the difference between fact and theory that would enhance any Michigan student’s education, even if they lowered the grade-point average of those more accustomed to being marked on effort rather than result.

Read More

Earlier this month, word broke that the Black Student Union at the University of Michigan is demanding that racial and ethnic studies required as part of the core curriculum for the College of Literature, Science and Arts be also required at the university’s other component colleges, such as the College of Engineering. The student government president supported the new requirement, according to a Daily Caller report:

It would be helpful for economics students to study “poverty, inequality and labor through the scope of race,” he [Sagar Lathia] suggested. Activists hope that any proposal approved by the administration would assert identity-based themes — such as gender, sexuality, immigration status, religion and race — as a core focus of the curriculum at each of the university’s colleges.

Frankly, the opposite might be truer: It might be comforting to students who seek education simply to amplify their political beliefs—after all, that is pretty much the effect if not the purpose of most racial and ethnic studies courses—but engineering courses would teach a discipline of thought and the difference between fact and theory that would enhance any Michigan student’s education, even if they lowered the grade-point average of those more accustomed to being marked on effort rather than result.

Perhaps the University of Michigan—and other prominent schools—should go further, however, and eliminate race and ethnic studies courses altogether, at least at the undergraduate level, because they are hopelessly narrow and deny students the broader base and context they would need to address race and ethnicity in a serious way. There is nothing wrong with African-American history, Latino studies, or gay studies, but they are by definition compartmentalized, more suited for a final thesis project or a Ph.D. concentration than the broader base a bachelor’s degree should afford. To use an area studies metaphor, limiting oneself to any specific ethnic group in the context of U.S. history is akin to studying Jordanian or Palestinian history without studying Islam, Christianity, broader Arab history and, for that matter, Ottoman history and Iran. Or, perhaps in the world of medicine, the analogy would be to studying gynecology without studying physiology, anatomy, or chemistry.

Perhaps the students taking race and ethnicity courses believe that U.S. history isn’t adequately reflective of their own experience, but embracing a willful ignorance of broader American history isn’t the way to further either knowledge or citizenship, nor is it the way to acquire the perspective to understand the difference in importance between Cesar Chavez and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This does not mean minorities or women should be ignored in history. But certainly social history classes and, where appropriate, political or diplomatic history classes as well, might incorporate them.

Ethnic studies do a disservice to many of those immersing themselves because it promotes intellectual ghettoization to the detriment of education. And while feminist theory, gender theory, and racial theories might sound good in narrow academic jargon, too often they become a cover to supplant research with politics. Simply put, theory is for people who don’t have libraries. Two cheers for the Black Student Union at Michigan for starting a debate. But now that debate is opened, perhaps it can be pursued to the opposite conclusion, one that prioritizes educational rigor over politics and inclusiveness over separation.

Read Less

Playing Politics with NYC’s Magnet Schools

Eight of the specialized public high schools in New York City, including Stuyvesant High School, The Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech, rely on a standardized admissions exam. Mayor Bill de Blasio said during his campaign that this system, although it treats every student the same, is unfair, because it does not allow a sufficient number of minority candidates to prevail. This year, just 8 black students and 21 Latino students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School (disclosure: I attended Stuyvesant in the 1980s), leading de Blasio to repeat his claim that admission should be based on a range of factors, including recommendations and grades. Blacks and Hispanics, who make up about 70 percent of the city’s eighth grade class, make up only about 12 percent of the group of students admitted to the elite schools that use the exam.

To judge the controversy, it is worth reading this New York Times story from last year, which observes that at least one minority has enjoyed great success on the admissions exam: 72 percent of Stuyvesant’s students at that time were Asian. The story begins with Ting Shi, who, for his first two years in the States, “slept in a bunk bed in the same room with his grandparents and a cousin in Chinatown.” Because his parents worked 12-hour shifts, he “saw them only on Sundays.” After two years of test prep, including after-school and summer classes, Ting scored well enough on the exam to get into Stuyvesant.

The public magnet schools have been a means for non-affluent families to get an education on par with the education they would receive at a first-rate private school. You would think that people on the left would view the success of Asians in the system as a sign of the triumph of merit over racial and, in many cases, economic privilege. But Asians are the wrong kind of minority, and their success, far from meriting celebration, apparently needs to be rolled back.

Read More

Eight of the specialized public high schools in New York City, including Stuyvesant High School, The Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech, rely on a standardized admissions exam. Mayor Bill de Blasio said during his campaign that this system, although it treats every student the same, is unfair, because it does not allow a sufficient number of minority candidates to prevail. This year, just 8 black students and 21 Latino students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School (disclosure: I attended Stuyvesant in the 1980s), leading de Blasio to repeat his claim that admission should be based on a range of factors, including recommendations and grades. Blacks and Hispanics, who make up about 70 percent of the city’s eighth grade class, make up only about 12 percent of the group of students admitted to the elite schools that use the exam.

To judge the controversy, it is worth reading this New York Times story from last year, which observes that at least one minority has enjoyed great success on the admissions exam: 72 percent of Stuyvesant’s students at that time were Asian. The story begins with Ting Shi, who, for his first two years in the States, “slept in a bunk bed in the same room with his grandparents and a cousin in Chinatown.” Because his parents worked 12-hour shifts, he “saw them only on Sundays.” After two years of test prep, including after-school and summer classes, Ting scored well enough on the exam to get into Stuyvesant.

The public magnet schools have been a means for non-affluent families to get an education on par with the education they would receive at a first-rate private school. You would think that people on the left would view the success of Asians in the system as a sign of the triumph of merit over racial and, in many cases, economic privilege. But Asians are the wrong kind of minority, and their success, far from meriting celebration, apparently needs to be rolled back.

It must be acknowledged that, although the city has made free test prep available and is engaged in outreach efforts, children in better school systems on average have a better chance of scoring well on the test. Children in “lower-income families have less access to high-quality elementary and middle schools.” But this argument proves too much. Since the quality of one’s elementary and middle school education presumably has something to do with one’s preparation for high school, the claim that standardized tests are imperfect indicators of merit, which is true enough, is a front for a call to lower admissions standards. Any standard that fails to admit a sufficient number of blacks and Hispanics will be denounced as, in the words of Lazar Treschan of the Community Service Society of New York, “academic apartheid.”

To see that this complaint–that the tests don’t really measure merit–is a front, one has only to imagine what would follow if New York took the route of considering recommendations in admissions, which, incidentally, would mean that someone would have to be paid to read all those recommendations. It seems likely that this standard would benefit children in affluent school districts whose parents will push for such recommendations and whose teachers will have more time and resources to devote to identifying and helping promising students. If, after adopting this more expensive admissions system, we found that no more or only a few more black and Hispanic students were admitted, a new measure of merit would have to be found. The sole guide to whether or not a system is gauging merit, for those who object to the admissions exams, is whether an unspecified target number of blacks and Hispanics are admitted.

Asian parents and students compelled to defend the tests have been “puzzled about having to defend a process they viewed as a vital steppingstone for immigrants. And more than a few see the criticism of the test as an attack on their cultures.” While one should hesitate to characterize “Asian culture,” there is no question that attitudes toward test taking play a role in this debate. Students interviewed by the Times asserted that “rigorous testing was generally an accepted practice in their home countries.” In contrast, those who object to the exams on “philosophical grounds” argue that “you shouldn’t have to prep Sunday to Sunday, to get into a good high school.”

Although I agree that deploying so much industriousness to pass a standardized exam is not the best possible use of an eighth graders’s time, I suspect that this time is better used than that of parents and children struggling to game the more holistic standards used for admission to private schools. However that may be, once we concede what seems undeniably true: that children are not responsible for the families they were born into or the school districts in which they happen to reside, we also have to acknowledge what attempting to rectify that unfairness at the level of admissions standards requires: not developing a new merit system, but doing away with merit systems altogether.

State Assemblyman Karim Camara, a Democrat from Brooklyn, plans to introduce legislation that would give the city power to change the admissions criteria for the specialized schools (the admissions criteria for three of the schools are fixed by state law) and “specify what other admissions criteria should be used.” This move, which affects only the small percentage of New York City’s students who attend public magnets and seeks to replace a system that has worked for students like Ting Shi, is unlikely to improve New York City’s school system in any way. But it is certainly, as Mayor de Blasio has shown, good politics.

Read Less

Perry’s Deconstructive Governing Agenda

In his speech at CPAC, Texas Governor Rick Perry brought the crowd to its feet by saying this:

Nowhere does the Constitution say we should federalize classrooms. Nowhere does it give federal officials primary responsibility over the air we breathe, the land we farm, the water we drink. And nowhere does it say Congress has the right to federalize health care… It is time for Washington to focus on the few things the Constitution establishes as the federal government’s role: defend our country, provide a cogent foreign policy, and – what the heck – deliver the mail, preferably on time and on Saturdays. Get out of the health care business! Get out of the education business!

This points to a concern of mine and which Michael Gerson and I wrote about recently in an essay for National Affairs. For starters, Governor Perry’s interpretation of enumerated powers is more restrictive than what many of the Federalist Founders believed. (See the essay and here  for more.) As for Governor Perry’s line of argument: He says the Constitution doesn’t give “primary” responsibility over the air we breathe, the land we farm and the water we drink. But in fact, the Constitution doesn’t affirm even a secondary role for the areas mentioned by Perry. Is it really his position, then, that the federal government should have no role in education, health care, and clean air and water? What about child immunization? Support for the National Institutes of Health? Pell grants? The GI Bill? All of the New Deal? Bans on child labor? The Second National Bank (signed into law by the “father” of the Constitution, James Madison)? After all, the Constitution says nothing about establishing a national bank.

Read More

In his speech at CPAC, Texas Governor Rick Perry brought the crowd to its feet by saying this:

Nowhere does the Constitution say we should federalize classrooms. Nowhere does it give federal officials primary responsibility over the air we breathe, the land we farm, the water we drink. And nowhere does it say Congress has the right to federalize health care… It is time for Washington to focus on the few things the Constitution establishes as the federal government’s role: defend our country, provide a cogent foreign policy, and – what the heck – deliver the mail, preferably on time and on Saturdays. Get out of the health care business! Get out of the education business!

This points to a concern of mine and which Michael Gerson and I wrote about recently in an essay for National Affairs. For starters, Governor Perry’s interpretation of enumerated powers is more restrictive than what many of the Federalist Founders believed. (See the essay and here  for more.) As for Governor Perry’s line of argument: He says the Constitution doesn’t give “primary” responsibility over the air we breathe, the land we farm and the water we drink. But in fact, the Constitution doesn’t affirm even a secondary role for the areas mentioned by Perry. Is it really his position, then, that the federal government should have no role in education, health care, and clean air and water? What about child immunization? Support for the National Institutes of Health? Pell grants? The GI Bill? All of the New Deal? Bans on child labor? The Second National Bank (signed into law by the “father” of the Constitution, James Madison)? After all, the Constitution says nothing about establishing a national bank.

It’s worth quoting here, as I have before, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who made this observation:

Perhaps the most important act of the Continental Congress was the Northwest Ordinance which provided a direct federal subsidy for education. Almost the first act of the Congress established by the present Constitution was to reaffirm this grant. A plaque on the Sub-Treasury on Wall Street commemorates both actions. This does not invalidate the view that the federal government ought not to exercise any responsibility, but it does make nonsense of the view that the Constitution – presumably because it does not mention the subject – somehow bars such an exercise.

It is one thing – and I think very much the right thing – to argue for a more limited role for the federal government and conservative reforms of everything from entitlement programs to education, from our tax code to our immigration system to much else. It’s quite another when we have the kind of loose talk from the governor of the second most populous state in America.

I realize that some people will argue that what Perry is offering up is simply “red meat” for a conservative audience. It’s a (lazy) default language those on the right sometimes resort to in order to express their unhappiness with the size of the federal government. But words matter, Governor Perry is actually putting forth (albeit in a simplified version) a governing philosophy, and most Americans who hear it will be alarmed by it.

As a political matter, running under the banner of “Get out of the health care business! Get out of the education business!” hardly strikes me as the best way to rally people who are not now voting for the GOP in presidential elections. I’m reminded of the words of the distinguished political scientist James Q. Wilson: “Telling people who want clean air, a safe environment, fewer drug dealers, a decent retirement, and protection against catastrophic medical bills that the government ought not to do these things is wishful or suicidal politics.”

According to a CBS News/New York Times poll, only 33 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the Republican Party while 61 percent had an unfavorable view. Having a prominent GOP figure give a speech in which he insists that virtually the entire modern state is unconstitutional and therefore illegitimate probably won’t help matters. Then again, neither does having the 2008 vice presidential nominee give a speech in which she takes great delight in re-writing Dr. Seuss.

This is not what the Republican Party or the conservative cause needs just now.

Read Less

Inequality’s Inconvenient Truths

Pop quiz: which Tea Party fiscal conservative said the following: “If you want to live in a more equal community, it might mean living in a more moribund economy.” Since this is obviously a trick question, here’s the answer: Annie Lowrey, the economics writer for the New York Times. Lowrey was offering a bit of common sense and basic economics. As such, the Times is a strange place for it: this sort of talk is usually the province of conservatives trying to explain how market economies work.

Lowrey’s piece was occasioned by the release of a study on inequality in American cities by the left-leaning Brookings Institution. To be sure, the study’s author, Alan Berube, does not think a city with high inequality is in the clear: “It may struggle to maintain mixed-income school environments that produce better outcomes for low-income kids. It may have too narrow a tax base from which to sustainably raise the revenues necessary for essential city services. And it may fail to produce housing and neighborhoods accessible to middle-class workers and families, so that those who move up or down the income ladder ultimately have no choice but to move out.”

But the causes of that inequality, the conditions that foster it, and the surest means to reduce it all throw cold water on President Obama’s inequality rhetoric and the class-warfare battle lines the Democrats have drawn. Contrary to the rich-getting-richer rhetoric the president relies on, Berube found that between 2007 and 2012, of the cities that saw dramatic increases in inequality, “most were not places where the rich made astronomical gains, but where low-income households suffered most from the recession and weak recovery…. Inequality increased across cities despite the fact that rich households were less rich in 2012 than in 2007.”

Read More

Pop quiz: which Tea Party fiscal conservative said the following: “If you want to live in a more equal community, it might mean living in a more moribund economy.” Since this is obviously a trick question, here’s the answer: Annie Lowrey, the economics writer for the New York Times. Lowrey was offering a bit of common sense and basic economics. As such, the Times is a strange place for it: this sort of talk is usually the province of conservatives trying to explain how market economies work.

Lowrey’s piece was occasioned by the release of a study on inequality in American cities by the left-leaning Brookings Institution. To be sure, the study’s author, Alan Berube, does not think a city with high inequality is in the clear: “It may struggle to maintain mixed-income school environments that produce better outcomes for low-income kids. It may have too narrow a tax base from which to sustainably raise the revenues necessary for essential city services. And it may fail to produce housing and neighborhoods accessible to middle-class workers and families, so that those who move up or down the income ladder ultimately have no choice but to move out.”

But the causes of that inequality, the conditions that foster it, and the surest means to reduce it all throw cold water on President Obama’s inequality rhetoric and the class-warfare battle lines the Democrats have drawn. Contrary to the rich-getting-richer rhetoric the president relies on, Berube found that between 2007 and 2012, of the cities that saw dramatic increases in inequality, “most were not places where the rich made astronomical gains, but where low-income households suffered most from the recession and weak recovery…. Inequality increased across cities despite the fact that rich households were less rich in 2012 than in 2007.”

What they need most, then, is job creation. The Brookings study finds that cities with high inequality are better at producing wealth–and for good reason. The job market in such cities tends more toward growth industries. Lowrey’s follow-up on the report includes comments from Berube on the desirability of some of the causes of inequality, even if some of its effects are undesirable:

But in some cases, higher income inequality might go hand in hand with economic vibrancy, the study found. “These more equal cities — they’re not home to the sectors driving economic growth, like technology and finance,” said its author, Alan Berube. “These are places that are home to sectors like transportation, logistics, warehousing.”

He added, “In terms of actual per capita income growth, these are not places that would be high up the list.”

Lowrey is of course not far behind with the caveats and qualifications. “That does not mean that measures intended to mitigate inequality will necessarily reduce the vibrancy of a local community,” she chimes in. But she leaves it at that. It’s not much of a defense of efforts to combat inequality. It basically amounts to: Efforts to reduce inequality will very likely pose a threat to economic growth and employment, but it’s possible, certainly, that not every attempt to mitigate inequality will crush the poor and unemployed under the counterproductive weight of liberals’ good intentions.

Roundabout rhetoric on this issue is necessary for the left because they can’t just come out and say what they mean without losing elections. Namely, that their desire to feel morally superior to others is more important than the actual welfare of their intended beneficiaries.

In fairness, elsewhere in the Times piece we do get a suggestion for reducing urban inequality without confiscating the wealth of others or destroying economic growth: “But New York and many other cities have promised to tackle inequality, in part by shifting the tax burden, but also through initiatives aimed at attracting middle-class families with cheaper housing and better schools.”

How do you cut inequality without destroying the economy? You simply import people who aren’t rich and aren’t poor! But what does this tell us about the concentration on income inequality? That it’s a case of misplaced priorities. Importing not-rich-but-not-poor residents doesn’t make any structural change to the city’s economy so much as it papers over the causes of inequality by gaming the numbers.

Democrats and the president make the case that the key to fighting inequality is making the poor un-poor. Importing middle-class folks from the suburbs doesn’t do that, does it? Sure, it may have peripheral benefits for the less well-off. But it doesn’t rescue others from poverty. It simply makes it look like poverty is less endemic. It’s a cosmetic façade, in other words. Which is what may make it so attractive to liberal policymakers.

Read Less

Union PSA: Show Some Appreciation, You Lachanophobic Anarchists

Imagine, for a moment, an America in which federal workers’ generous compensation and job security were closer to that of their private sector counterparts. Or, alternatively: imagine an America in which there was less redundancy in the federal workforce, saving taxpayer dollars. Or imagine an America in which there was less bureaucratic red tape to be enforced against struggling entrepreneurs or business owners, thus necessitating a less robust federal workforce. Or imagine, as John Lennon might if he were around today, there’s no TSA.

All that probably sounds delightful. Which is why unions representing federal employees don’t want you to imagine any of that. Instead, they invite you to imagine, as their new ad campaign hopes you will, “Life without federal employees.” But they mean, of course, any federal employees. That’s the basis for a renewed effort by federal unions to burnish their image in the minds of the Americans that they believe don’t fully appreciate them. As the Washington Post reports, the National Treasury Employees Union is releasing their own version of public service announcements on behalf of federal employees:

Read More

Imagine, for a moment, an America in which federal workers’ generous compensation and job security were closer to that of their private sector counterparts. Or, alternatively: imagine an America in which there was less redundancy in the federal workforce, saving taxpayer dollars. Or imagine an America in which there was less bureaucratic red tape to be enforced against struggling entrepreneurs or business owners, thus necessitating a less robust federal workforce. Or imagine, as John Lennon might if he were around today, there’s no TSA.

All that probably sounds delightful. Which is why unions representing federal employees don’t want you to imagine any of that. Instead, they invite you to imagine, as their new ad campaign hopes you will, “Life without federal employees.” But they mean, of course, any federal employees. That’s the basis for a renewed effort by federal unions to burnish their image in the minds of the Americans that they believe don’t fully appreciate them. As the Washington Post reports, the National Treasury Employees Union is releasing their own version of public service announcements on behalf of federal employees:

For example, one 15-second PSA says:

Without us, you should be afraid of your salad.
Without us, our borders would go unprotected.
Without us, we would live in fear of a nuclear meltdown.
Federal employees. They work for U.S.
TheyWorkforUs.org

Without overpaid bureaucrats, you’d be mired in lachanophobia if you knew what was good for you. Of course, you probably wouldn’t know what was good for you without federal employees to tell you. The Post continues:

The announcements are being sent to 300 television stations and 1,000 radio stations in top markets.

This is NTEU’s third campaign “and each time it keeps getting bigger,” Kelley told reporters Wednesday. Between June 2011 and June 2012, radio, television and cable outlets ran NTEU PSAs 25,048 times, worth $7.4 million in media time, according to the labor organization, which said 292 million people saw or heard those PSAs.

The current PSAs are available on TheyWorkforUs.org. On the Web site, NTEU asks the public to imagine what life would be like without feds. NTEU also supplies the answer:

“You wouldn’t want it.”

It’s worth pointing out here just how much the union has to stack the deck to get some appreciation. Jews make a blessing on their food to thank God for it before eating; the NTEU wants you to thank a union before fearlessly diving into your leafy greens.

In reality, the choice is surely not between anarchy dominated by nightmarish salad monsters and a bureaucratic superstate that chases off your kid’s lemonade stand. What Americans don’t like about the federal workforce has more to do with the fact that government employees make more than their private-sector counterparts, generally get far better benefits, and in many cases those employees are tasked with putting up obstacles to private-sector jobs. And they tend to think private-sector employees are working harder for less money than public-sector workers.

Americans—even those who support unions—are often uneasy with certain public-sector union rights, like the right to strike. Chris Christie had success in New Jersey by asking teachers unions to pay their fair share—less than their fair share actually: anything at all—by contributing a bit to their benefits, as private-sector employees did. They realize that, as Daniel DiSalvo has written, “In today’s public sector, good pay, generous benefits, and job security make possible a stable middle-class existence for nearly everyone from janitors to jailors. In the private economy, meanwhile, cutthroat competition, increased income inequality, and layoffs squeeze the middle class.”

And Americans are sensible enough to understand the moral hazard in such a state of affairs, where powerful government employees can negotiate from their government employers more and more of the private sector’s money. But even more than the chutzpah it takes for unions to put out ads attempting to shame the public into thanking the unions for taking their money, this campaign is an indication that public-sector unions are well aware of their continued image problem. That they think equating disapproval of their work with anarchy is the way to fix it shows that it’s likely to persist.

Read Less

Conservatives and Culture

Patrick Ruffini, long one of the conservative movement’s brightest minds on tech strategy in politics, has been working (with some success) to shake the right out of its ossified technological stasis. Part of Ruffini’s insight stems from his bias toward creativity and against institutional inertia: an entrenched institution isn’t by definition counterproductive, but neither should its persistence be taken for granted.

This week, Ruffini took to Twitter to broaden his critique to the conservative movement’s attitude toward institutions in general, both its own and those of the left. This Storify page captures the relevant tweets. Ruffini undoubtedly makes good points, and has some worthwhile advice for the right. But I think the limitation he runs into here is not really about cultural institutions per se but the culture that leads to the formation of those institutions. Ruffini writes:

Where is our Harvard, our New York Times, our Hollywood, our Silicon Valley? Owning the commanding heights of culture, it matters.

It’s true that culture matters, and later on Ruffini seems to acknowledge that a conservative version of the New York Times is not the best way de-marginalize conservative cultural perspectives when he writes:

This is why I’m encouraged to see guys like Robert Costa go to WaPo. Hard news reporting that started on the right.

Read More

Patrick Ruffini, long one of the conservative movement’s brightest minds on tech strategy in politics, has been working (with some success) to shake the right out of its ossified technological stasis. Part of Ruffini’s insight stems from his bias toward creativity and against institutional inertia: an entrenched institution isn’t by definition counterproductive, but neither should its persistence be taken for granted.

This week, Ruffini took to Twitter to broaden his critique to the conservative movement’s attitude toward institutions in general, both its own and those of the left. This Storify page captures the relevant tweets. Ruffini undoubtedly makes good points, and has some worthwhile advice for the right. But I think the limitation he runs into here is not really about cultural institutions per se but the culture that leads to the formation of those institutions. Ruffini writes:

Where is our Harvard, our New York Times, our Hollywood, our Silicon Valley? Owning the commanding heights of culture, it matters.

It’s true that culture matters, and later on Ruffini seems to acknowledge that a conservative version of the New York Times is not the best way de-marginalize conservative cultural perspectives when he writes:

This is why I’m encouraged to see guys like Robert Costa go to WaPo. Hard news reporting that started on the right.

Indeed, as everyone knows, the most glaring lack of diversity in liberal media and cultural institutions is lack of intellectual and ideological diversity. The right produces plenty of talent, but the left’s rigid orthodoxy and enforced groupthink too rarely take the risk of exposing their audience to a dissenting view.

But the larger obstacle to the construction of conservative cultural institutions is that conservatives are so often by nature averse to the infusion of partisan politics into every facet of private life that would be required. Take each of the institutions Ruffini mentions.

Harvard: this is a stand-in for liberal academia overall, but it’s a good example since it retains its high status even as it basically gives its students A’s just for showing up. How does a place like Harvard become what it is today, when it once had such prestige and promise? Easy: the politicization of education by liberals who don’t want their students to be challenged. Do conservatives even want their own version of that? Should they? I don’t think they should, and I don’t they really do either. I think they yearn for the influence such institutions have, but greatly—and appropriately—disapprove of what it takes to get there.

New York Times: this is a stand-in for the liberal mainstream media, especially since the Times itself is going through such a crisis of credibility right now. But Ruffini already answered this one when he spoke of National Review’s ace political reporter Robert Costa going to the Washington Post. Conservative alternatives are too easily defined as such. More importantly, the Times mostly bellows groupthink and has allowed its bias not only to seep into its news reporting, but to become its news reporting. Why would conservatives want to foist another such institution on the country?

Hollywood: Here again we recently got a good look at how this operates. Actress Maria Conchita Alonso lost work because she supported a Republican. This new Hollywood blacklist is seemingly getting government sanction by federal authorities targeting any other nonconformists.

Blacklists, propaganda, the politicization of education—this is what it took for liberals to succeed in dominating cultural institutions. Which brings me to the last example: Silicon Valley. Ruffini answers this question with a sharp observation later in his discussion, when he writes:

If there are = numbers of smart righties as smart lefties, where do they go. On the right, they go into business. On the left, into politics

And thank goodness for that! Of course we want smart conservatives going into politics, and there are plenty. But it’s the sign of a healthy outlook when Americans are driven to the private sector instead of lusting after power. We are a nation with a government, as the saying goes, not the other way around.

It may be politically marginalizing to the right that conservatives believe in the need for a society outside the suffocating bureaucracy of the federal government, while leftists don’t. But the fact that conservatives believe in a life outside of partisan politics is healthy both for the conservative movement and the country on the whole. It’s a worthy, if frustratingly disempowering, sacrifice.

Read Less

School Punishment According to Race, not Behavior

Sometimes the mind just boggles. The Department of Justice has issued a letter informing schools about federal laws against racial discrimination. Consider this paragraph:

Schools also violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race. Examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation (e.g., ticketing or other fines or summonses) upon any student who commits a specified offense — such as being tardy to class, being in possession of a cellular phone, being found insubordinate, acting out, or not wearing the proper school uniform.

In other words, punishment for bad behavior must be meted out according to racial quotas. If the school is one-third black, one-third white, and one-third Asian, then each racial group must receive one-third of the punishments. If two-thirds of the infractions are committed by one racial group, then so what? That’s discrimination and discrimination violates federal law.

Read More

Sometimes the mind just boggles. The Department of Justice has issued a letter informing schools about federal laws against racial discrimination. Consider this paragraph:

Schools also violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race. Examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation (e.g., ticketing or other fines or summonses) upon any student who commits a specified offense — such as being tardy to class, being in possession of a cellular phone, being found insubordinate, acting out, or not wearing the proper school uniform.

In other words, punishment for bad behavior must be meted out according to racial quotas. If the school is one-third black, one-third white, and one-third Asian, then each racial group must receive one-third of the punishments. If two-thirds of the infractions are committed by one racial group, then so what? That’s discrimination and discrimination violates federal law.

It is highly unlikely that each group is going to misbehave equally, for exactly the same reason that it is highly unlikely that the boys named John, the boys named David, and the boys named Robert will misbehave equally: the world doesn’t work that way. If actually enforced, this edict would require schools to do one of two things. Either they will have to let some miscreant students in one racial group go unpunished, because that group has reached its quota of punishments, or will have to hand out punishments to innocent students in other racial groups to keep the punishments racially balanced. The first alternative almost guarantees disruption and a poor learning environment, the second is simply grotesque. Should the schools bring back the Roman practice of decimation, and use lots to pick the innocent students to be expelled?

Where does such nonsense (in the literal as well as figurative meaning of that word) come from? It comes from the left’s obsession both with race and with groups. There are no individuals on the left. It is not little Johnny Jones who brings a frog to school and puts it in a girl’s desk, it is just a white boy who does so.

How dehumanizing can you get?

Read Less

Obama’s Inequality Prescription: Cronyism, Generational Theft, and Massive Debt

President Obama’s speech yesterday on inequality was a combination of the cynicism and panic that have governed his actions lately. Panic, because the speech was an obvious populist pep rally to distract from the massive economic disruptions his failing and flailing policies–at the moment, chiefly ObamaCare–are causing. And cynicism, because his opinion of his audience is low enough that he thinks the transparent ploy will work on them.

The pointlessness of the speech was clear when he said this:

Now, you’ll be pleased to know this is not a State of the Union Address.  (Laughter.)  And many of the ideas that can make the biggest difference in expanding opportunity I’ve presented before.  But let me offer a few key principles, just a roadmap that I believe should guide us in both our legislative agenda and our administrative efforts.

He’s giving them fair warning that he’s got nothing new to offer and his prescriptions will mostly consist of sloganeering–another chapter, in other words, of the bumper-sticker presidency. And that is indeed what followed. But there was also a noteworthy element to the speech: after five years of running the country, the president has developed no creative ideas and shown no willingness to think outside the conventional liberal box, even when those ideas are clearly failing.

Read More

President Obama’s speech yesterday on inequality was a combination of the cynicism and panic that have governed his actions lately. Panic, because the speech was an obvious populist pep rally to distract from the massive economic disruptions his failing and flailing policies–at the moment, chiefly ObamaCare–are causing. And cynicism, because his opinion of his audience is low enough that he thinks the transparent ploy will work on them.

The pointlessness of the speech was clear when he said this:

Now, you’ll be pleased to know this is not a State of the Union Address.  (Laughter.)  And many of the ideas that can make the biggest difference in expanding opportunity I’ve presented before.  But let me offer a few key principles, just a roadmap that I believe should guide us in both our legislative agenda and our administrative efforts.

He’s giving them fair warning that he’s got nothing new to offer and his prescriptions will mostly consist of sloganeering–another chapter, in other words, of the bumper-sticker presidency. And that is indeed what followed. But there was also a noteworthy element to the speech: after five years of running the country, the president has developed no creative ideas and shown no willingness to think outside the conventional liberal box, even when those ideas are clearly failing.

For example, the president noted the importance of education, which is true, and then said this: “We know it’s harder to find a job today without some higher education, so we’ve helped more students go to college with grants and loans that go farther than before.” What the federal government’s loan program has done, as we know, is raise tuition prices even more and further inflate a bubble that puts the economy in more danger:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke dismissed these concerns by saying that most of the money in the student-loan sector is federal money, which just means taxpayers – rather than lending institutions – will take the initial hit. But the board of governors makes a salient point as student loan debt soars to $1 trillion and exceeds the nation’s level of credit-card debt.

“The bankers said student lending shares features of the housing crisis including ‘significant growth of subsidized lending in pursuit of a social good,’ in this case higher education instead of expanded home ownership,” according to that Bloomberg report. “The lending has put upward pressure on tuition, just as the mortgage lending boom led to rising home prices, they said, calling both examples of a ‘lack of underwriting discipline.’”

For my entire life, I’ve heard policy makers insist that there is insufficient funding for education and that getting a college degree is the pathway to a better life. But as the bankers noted, the sea of student-loan money artificially boosts the cost of tuition, which creates a new cycle of indebtedness by students. Higher tuition makes “pay-as-you-go” a less-likely option.

The president also returned to a recent hobbyhorse, the minimum wage. Here, he unintentionally hurts two of his main targets of relief, students and workers, in one shot. Obama said:

And as we empower our young people for future success, the third part of this middle-class economics is empowering our workers.  It’s time to ensure our collective bargaining laws function as they’re supposed to — (applause) — so unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class. …

And even though we’re bringing manufacturing jobs back to America, we’re creating more good-paying jobs in education and health care and business services; we know that we’re going to have a greater and greater portion of our people in the service sector.  And we know that there are airport workers, and fast-food workers, and nurse assistants, and retail salespeople who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty.  (Applause.)  And that’s why it’s well past the time to raise a minimum wage that in real terms right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office.

But empowering union members isn’t the same as empowering workers. In many cases, it’s the opposite. Raising the minimum wage prices certain workers out of some industries, further cementing employed union workers’ job security at the expense of those on the lower rungs of the workforce. In other words, the president will reduce employment to reward his campaign allies. This is cronyism dressed up as moral governance, and it’s both shameful and par for the course for elected Democrats.

And it gets worse. Unions whose workers don’t make minimum wage support the president’s minimum wage hike for another reason. As Richard Berman explained in the Wall Street Journal when Obama last floated a push for a minimum wage hike: “The labor contracts that we examined used a variety of methods to trigger the increases. The two most popular formulas were setting baseline union wages as a percentage above the state or federal minimum wage or mandating a flat wage premium above the minimum wage.”

So hiking the minimum wage can automatically reward Obama’s union allies in a number of ways. And of course empowering unions, especially through some of the prevailing collective bargaining frameworks, can also harm students. State-negotiated union education contracts aim for a degree of wage and benefit parity, which can be affordable (though often still unnecessary) for some school districts but plainly outrageous for others. The wages and benefits can’t be cut when budgets fail, so students lose out on books, computers, after-school activities, tutors–anything that doesn’t impact the unions but quite obviously detracts from the students.

Cronyism, generational theft, and massive debt are what the president has to offer on the economic front. He should be glad the speech flew under the radar.

Read Less

Education Revolution? Don’t Believe the Hype or the Counter-Hype

Only two years ago, in fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig opened their Stanford University class in artificial intelligence to anyone who cared to take it online. About 160,000 students from 190 countries signed up. Their class was not the first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). But Thrun was no rumpled academic; he was a Silicon Valley visionary, associated with Google, and known for his work on self-driving cars. When Thrun founded Udacity to make and deliver MOOCs, and declared that MOOCs would drive nearly all universities out of business, many believed he would change education forever. David Brooks issued an educational tsunami warning. Tom Friedman declared a revolution; nothing had more potential to lift people out of poverty; nothing had more potential to “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.”

Today, not so much. According to a recent New Yorker essay on the self-driving car, Google people not only work in jeans and sit on exercise balls but also like to say “In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.” So perhaps people should listen to Thrun’s most recent declaration, reported in Max Chafkin’s Fast Company profile of Thrun: “I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial. But the data was at odds with this idea. … We have a lousy product.”

Read More

Only two years ago, in fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig opened their Stanford University class in artificial intelligence to anyone who cared to take it online. About 160,000 students from 190 countries signed up. Their class was not the first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). But Thrun was no rumpled academic; he was a Silicon Valley visionary, associated with Google, and known for his work on self-driving cars. When Thrun founded Udacity to make and deliver MOOCs, and declared that MOOCs would drive nearly all universities out of business, many believed he would change education forever. David Brooks issued an educational tsunami warning. Tom Friedman declared a revolution; nothing had more potential to lift people out of poverty; nothing had more potential to “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.”

Today, not so much. According to a recent New Yorker essay on the self-driving car, Google people not only work in jeans and sit on exercise balls but also like to say “In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.” So perhaps people should listen to Thrun’s most recent declaration, reported in Max Chafkin’s Fast Company profile of Thrun: “I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial. But the data was at odds with this idea. … We have a lousy product.”

Two disappointments stick out. First, Thrun, like Friedman, thought that MOOCs, because of their low cost per student, would serve the poor and underserved. But the data we have so far indicate that the people who sign up for them already have degrees. According to Steve Kolowich’s account of a recent University of Pennsylvania survey of 34,779 MOOC students, more than 80 percent of respondents had a two- or four-year degree and 44 percent had some graduate education. In countries like Brazil, India, and China, “80 percent of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well educated 6 percent of the population.” Presumably, those who complete MOOCs successfully are still more elite.

Second, Thrun thought that MOOCs would offer at least as good a product as traditional education does at a tiny fraction of the cost. But a partnership between Udacity and San Jose State University has produced “disastrous” results. “Among those pupils who took remedial math during the pilot program, just 25% passed. And when the online class was compared with the in-person variety, the numbers were even more discouraging. A student taking college algebra in person was 52% more likely to pass than one taking a Udacity class.”

All this is no surprise. The kinds of students Thrun and others asserted MOOCs would reach, the poor and underserved, are most likely to require the kind of guidance and support that a massive lecture-based platform is least likely to provide. As Thrun says of the San Jose students, it’s “a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

Thrun has concluded that the future of Udacity is in professional development, providing courses, like one for saleforce.com on “how to best use its application programming interface.” Predictably, those who were (justifiably) skeptical of MOOCs all along are saying I told you so.

But to declare the end of MOOCs is to place as much blind trust in Sebastian Thrun as those who declared the revolution did. In an inadvertently comic part of the Fast Company profile, we learn that Thrun concluded that MOOC problems are irremediable based on one important experiment, a statistics class taught by “the master himself.” Although Thrun deployed such sophisticated pedagogical techniques as trying to convey “his enthusiasm for the subject,” completion rates remained low. If Thrun can’t solve the MOOC problem singlehandedly, we are asked to conclude, then MOOCs are doomed.

But the high cost of higher education hasn’t gone away, it is still far from clear that MOOCs are much, if any, worse than big lecture classes routinely taught at universities, and MOOCs can still offer advantages, including scheduling flexibility, self-paced learning, and instant feedback, that brick and mortar colleges are not in a good position to offer. Udacity has rivals, including EdX and Coursera, who have no intention of abandoning the field. I do not think that MOOCs are as transformative as Thrun once did, but there is no good reason to dismiss them either.

Toward the end of the Thrun profile, we are taken to a soundproof studio, where an instructor “with wavy shoulder-length hair, wearing a baggy T-shirt and cargo shorts” struggles to convey a difficult concept. “Lounging,” (but of course) “on a beanbag chair,” one of Udacity’s course developers works to help the instructor, whose “only formal teaching credential is as an assistant scuba-diving instructor” get through a take. Perhaps the lesson of the hyped rise of MOOCS, and what is likely to be their hyped fall, is that we shouldn’t be so quick to think that Silicon Valley knows what is good for us, just because they are more clever and casually dressed than we are.

Read Less

To Fight Assimilation, Stop Dumbing Down Judaism

A major topic of this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is how to combat assimilation. At the conference, which is being held in Jerusalem this week, JFNA leaders have unveiled various ambitious ideas, including free universal Jewish preschool. I’d like to offer a much simpler proposal: Just stop dumbing down Judaism. American Jews overwhelmingly receive excellent secular educations; they are exposed to the most challenging, rigorous, thought-provoking material available in science, philosophy, history, and literature. Yet they rarely encounter Judaism at a level more intellectually challenging than a kindergarten class. And as long as that’s true, Judaism will never be able to compete with the secular world for their attention.

Ironically, the Orthodox were way ahead of the non-Orthodox in grasping this, and it’s one reason why Orthodox retention rates are currently much higher than non-Orthodox ones. As far back as 1917, one of Poland’s leading Orthodox rabbis, the Chofetz Chaim, approved the opening of Bais Yaakov, the first school to teach Torah to girls. His reasoning was simple: It had become normal for girls to attend secular schools, and if they didn’t obtain a comparable Jewish education, they wouldn’t stay Jewish. The same understanding fueled the opening of numerous high-level women’s yeshivas in recent decades: Today, girls routinely attend not just secondary school, but college and graduate school; hence their Jewish learning must also be on a higher level. 

Read More

A major topic of this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is how to combat assimilation. At the conference, which is being held in Jerusalem this week, JFNA leaders have unveiled various ambitious ideas, including free universal Jewish preschool. I’d like to offer a much simpler proposal: Just stop dumbing down Judaism. American Jews overwhelmingly receive excellent secular educations; they are exposed to the most challenging, rigorous, thought-provoking material available in science, philosophy, history, and literature. Yet they rarely encounter Judaism at a level more intellectually challenging than a kindergarten class. And as long as that’s true, Judaism will never be able to compete with the secular world for their attention.

Ironically, the Orthodox were way ahead of the non-Orthodox in grasping this, and it’s one reason why Orthodox retention rates are currently much higher than non-Orthodox ones. As far back as 1917, one of Poland’s leading Orthodox rabbis, the Chofetz Chaim, approved the opening of Bais Yaakov, the first school to teach Torah to girls. His reasoning was simple: It had become normal for girls to attend secular schools, and if they didn’t obtain a comparable Jewish education, they wouldn’t stay Jewish. The same understanding fueled the opening of numerous high-level women’s yeshivas in recent decades: Today, girls routinely attend not just secondary school, but college and graduate school; hence their Jewish learning must also be on a higher level. 

But in the non-Orthodox community, Jewish education never comes close to the intellectual rigor of secular studies. Almost every American Jew who has attended a non-Orthodox Hebrew school can attest to this; just last week, the Forward ran a piece by an associate professor, Michah Gottlieb, deploring the lack of opportunities for serious Torah study at his childhood synagogue. My own experience is equally typical: During 12 years of Hebrew school, the numbing boredom was punctured by only two classes that offered comparable intellectual stimulation to my secular public schools–and both were taught by Orthodox rabbis. The difference was that they took classic Jewish texts seriously, insisting that we read, analyze, and debate them with the same rigor I encountered in secular history or literature classes.

The good news is that, given a chance, Judaism can easily compete with the best secular thought has to offer. There’s a reason why Jewish sources have inspired some of the greatest non-Jewish writers and thinkers throughout the ages–including many of the 17th-century political theorists who laid the foundations of modern democracy. As Herzl Institute President Yoram Hazony noted in a 2005 essay, “Hobbes was learned in Hebrew, and his magnum opus Leviathan devotes over three hundred pages to the political teachings of Scripture. Locke knew Hebrew as well, and the first of his Two Treatises on Government is devoted to biblical interpretation … [John Selden’s] 1635 treatise on the law of the sea, Mare Clausum—one of the founding texts of international law—argued for the concept of national sovereignty on both land and sea on the basis of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.”

In Israel, serious study of classic Jewish sources has exploded in recent years–not because secular Jews are becoming Orthodox, but because they’ve understood that these texts are their heritage, too. American Jews need to offer their children similar opportunities. For without being exposed to Judaism’s intellectual riches, they will never consider it worth a lifetime’s commitment.

Read Less

The Enduring Value of Enduring Questions

In an October 22 letter to Carole Watson, Acting Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, questions grants the agency has issued to consider questions like “What is the good life and how do I live it?” Sessions “[affirms] the value of the humanities” but insists that “care and discipline must be exercised by any government agency that decides to favor some projects over others.”

I am surprised and disappointed that a conservative who “[affirms] the value of the humanities” would target the Enduring Questions program, which supports the development of courses that enable “undergraduates and teachers to grapple with a fundamental concern of human life addressed by the humanities, and to join together in a deep and sustained program of reading in order to encounter influential thinkers over the centuries and into the present day.” In my own Enduring Questions course–“What is Love?”–which I offer at Ursinus College, students and faculty read, in their entirety, among other things, Plato’s Symposium, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet. The grant, of a little less than $25,000, freed me up to develop, assess, and improve the course, not a part of my regular offerings as a professor in our politics department, over a two-year period.

Read More

In an October 22 letter to Carole Watson, Acting Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, questions grants the agency has issued to consider questions like “What is the good life and how do I live it?” Sessions “[affirms] the value of the humanities” but insists that “care and discipline must be exercised by any government agency that decides to favor some projects over others.”

I am surprised and disappointed that a conservative who “[affirms] the value of the humanities” would target the Enduring Questions program, which supports the development of courses that enable “undergraduates and teachers to grapple with a fundamental concern of human life addressed by the humanities, and to join together in a deep and sustained program of reading in order to encounter influential thinkers over the centuries and into the present day.” In my own Enduring Questions course–“What is Love?”–which I offer at Ursinus College, students and faculty read, in their entirety, among other things, Plato’s Symposium, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet. The grant, of a little less than $25,000, freed me up to develop, assess, and improve the course, not a part of my regular offerings as a professor in our politics department, over a two-year period.

My course is not an anomaly. The Enduring Questions grant program exists, as the description shows, to put students in touch with fundamental human questions and those who offer help in pursuing them. As the National Association of Scholars (NAS), an organization founded to “confront the rise of campus political correctness” has recognized, the Enduring Questions program is the opposite of politically correct because it engages students in a struggle “over the core issues of the human condition,” in “debating, weighing evidence, and conversing with others” about those issues. And as NAS President Peter Woods reminds us, the NAS journal Academic Questions includes the question how “do we recenter liberal education on the enduring questions of the human condition?” in its statement of editorial purpose. Enduring Questions is the very program critics of the politicization of higher education have been looking for.

Of course, some classes recommended by faculty review committees will fulfill the purpose of the program much better than others. But there is no question that over the history of the Enduring Questions program, more undergraduates than would otherwise have been reached have been engaged in challenging courses, asked to reflect on important, timeless questions, and encouraged to take seriously what great books have to say about them.

So when Senator Sessions asks whether $25,000 should be spent so that students can ask “what is the good life, and how do I live it?” the NEH and conservatives should, for once, be of one mind in answering “Hell yes.”

Read Less

Teacher Unions and Sexual Misconduct

I highly recommend an op-ed by Campbell Brown, a former anchor for NBC and CNN who is now the founder of the Parents Transparency Project. She documents several cases in which arbitrators are effectively undermining what teacher unions claim is a “zero tolerance” when it comes to sexual misconduct cases. In instance after instance they find conduct that should be a firing offense to be permissible. Many arbitrators, in Brown’s words, “normalize sexual behavior or invent standards to arrive at decisions that flout zero tolerance.”

To Ms. Brown’s observations I’d add these three.

The first is that it’s not exactly a state secret that teacher unions have set up the system in a way that leads to arbitrators handing out light sentences. Which is just more evidence (though none was really needed) that teacher unions are not interested in the well being of children as much as they are in protecting teachers, including predatory teachers. When William Bennett was Secretary of Education, he said (and I’m paraphrasing now) that teacher unions were perhaps the most pernicious legal organizations in America. Nothing has changed. The damage teachers unions have done – by what they have done and by what they have kept from being done – is extraordinary.

Second, the attitude of arbitrators is a fairly common one, and it goes like this: There are certain things that qualify as genuine misconduct; predatory sexual behavior really isn’t one of them. In truth it is, and (to take just one example) referring to a teacher’s secret agreement to be sent nude photos of a student as “a lapse in judgment … [that] does not justify upholding her termination” is a sign of moral debasement. Read More

I highly recommend an op-ed by Campbell Brown, a former anchor for NBC and CNN who is now the founder of the Parents Transparency Project. She documents several cases in which arbitrators are effectively undermining what teacher unions claim is a “zero tolerance” when it comes to sexual misconduct cases. In instance after instance they find conduct that should be a firing offense to be permissible. Many arbitrators, in Brown’s words, “normalize sexual behavior or invent standards to arrive at decisions that flout zero tolerance.”

To Ms. Brown’s observations I’d add these three.

The first is that it’s not exactly a state secret that teacher unions have set up the system in a way that leads to arbitrators handing out light sentences. Which is just more evidence (though none was really needed) that teacher unions are not interested in the well being of children as much as they are in protecting teachers, including predatory teachers. When William Bennett was Secretary of Education, he said (and I’m paraphrasing now) that teacher unions were perhaps the most pernicious legal organizations in America. Nothing has changed. The damage teachers unions have done – by what they have done and by what they have kept from being done – is extraordinary.

Second, the attitude of arbitrators is a fairly common one, and it goes like this: There are certain things that qualify as genuine misconduct; predatory sexual behavior really isn’t one of them. In truth it is, and (to take just one example) referring to a teacher’s secret agreement to be sent nude photos of a student as “a lapse in judgment … [that] does not justify upholding her termination” is a sign of moral debasement.

The harm that can be done to young people who are sexually mistreated, physically and emotionally, can be grave and long lasting. We live in a society where many people consider virtually anything that’s related to sex and sexual misconduct places it in a value-free zone. It’s quite the opposite; and when this reality is denied by our culture our children – and not only our children – suffer.

A final word about schools. They once took seriously the motto in loco parentis (“in the place of a parent”). Parents could count on schools, and those who represented schools and teachers, to protect children from physical and moral harm and nurture their character. They had confidence that their children would be in the presence of morally mature and even exemplary adults.

Don’t get me wrong; most teachers in America are very fine people and many of them are outstanding: trustworthy, honorable, dedicated, people of integrity. My point is a different one: the organizations that say they represent teachers are in fact harming their profession by acting as a shield that protects the worst among them. There is a cost to such things.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Justice Louis Brandeis said. What Campbell Brown has done is to cast much needed sunlight on practices that need to be stopped and people who need to be held accountable. Because if they’re not, it’s our kids who will pay the price.

Read Less

Egypt’s Prognosis Goes from Bad to Worse

Every year, the World Economic Forum releases The Global Competitiveness Report. The report shows just how desperate the situation has become in Egypt. In quality of primary education, for example, Egypt now ranks 148th out of 148 countries surveyed. That puts it behind such countries as Chad, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone. Its higher education system is 145th, beating out only South Africa, Libya, and Yemen. And it comes in 143rd in women in the labor force as a ratio to men, ahead of only Pakistan, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

The tsunami over the horizon is Egypt’s poor economic performance; no politician, whether Islamist or pro-military, appears ready to end Egypt’s subsidies of food and fuel, and so Egypt continues to hemorrhage whatever money allies grant it. In the category “Government Budget Balance, as percent of GDP,” Egypt again comes in dead last.

Read More

Every year, the World Economic Forum releases The Global Competitiveness Report. The report shows just how desperate the situation has become in Egypt. In quality of primary education, for example, Egypt now ranks 148th out of 148 countries surveyed. That puts it behind such countries as Chad, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone. Its higher education system is 145th, beating out only South Africa, Libya, and Yemen. And it comes in 143rd in women in the labor force as a ratio to men, ahead of only Pakistan, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

The tsunami over the horizon is Egypt’s poor economic performance; no politician, whether Islamist or pro-military, appears ready to end Egypt’s subsidies of food and fuel, and so Egypt continues to hemorrhage whatever money allies grant it. In the category “Government Budget Balance, as percent of GDP,” Egypt again comes in dead last.

Other Arab Spring countries do not do much better. Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen hug the bottom rung throughout. Tunisia is supposed to be the shining star of the Arab Spring—but with a female labor participation ranking of 136 out of 146, that’s like saying we should celebrate Jersey City because it’s not Newark.

Part of the problem might be the chicken-and-egg conundrum: Perhaps the Arab Spring has turned out so badly (and Islamists have been so successful exploiting popular ignorance) because the education system has long been abysmal and the financial system so poor. Regardless, the question of how Egypt and other states can break out of such a cycle is unclear, but their inability to rise in the ranking has long-term security implications for the region. What an indictment it is of decades of poor leadership that these states cannot even beat a place like Zimbabwe where it counts.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.